• August 1, 2014

The MOOC 'Revolution' May Not Be as Disruptive as Some Had Imagined

MOOCs May Not Be So Disruptive After All 1

Winni Wintermeyer, Sipa USA, Newscom

"A medium where only self-motivated, Web-savvy people sign up, and the success rate is 10 percent, doesn't strike me quite yet as a solution to the problems of higher education," says Sebastian Thrun, of Udacity.

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close MOOCs May Not Be So Disruptive After All 1

Winni Wintermeyer, Sipa USA, Newscom

"A medium where only self-motivated, Web-savvy people sign up, and the success rate is 10 percent, doesn't strike me quite yet as a solution to the problems of higher education," says Sebastian Thrun, of Udacity.

In California, the MOOC revolution came to a halt unceremoniously.

Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the leader of the State Senate, quietly decided to put his online-education bill on the back burner last month. The bill, introduced with fanfare in March, originally aimed to push public universities to award academic credit to students who succeeded in some massive open online courses offered by outside providers. But now that the universities have promised to expand their own online courses, the senator sees no immediate need to let outside providers through the door, says his spokesman, Rhys Williams.

The fate of the California bill, SB 520, is the latest indication that MOOCs might not be the revolutionary force that many had imagined. They're not bound for extinction, nor are the companies that rose to prominence on the strength of the MOOC hype doomed. But political, regulatory, administrative, and faculty barriers to the kind of unfettered online education that MOOC promoters originally envisioned have proved quite high, and it's starting to look as if what they have to offer to universities may be technology tools and services that are more helpful than revolutionary.

Mr. Steinberg's decision to shelve the bill was voluntary, but by the time he made it, SB 520 had already been defanged­­—a series of revisions had returned control over college credits to university faculties.

In Florida the Legislature considered a bill with similar aims—circumventing the higher-education bureaucracy and giving nonuniversity players, including MOOC providers, a chance to have certain courses count for credit. That measure became law, but not before it, too, had been blunted by negotiation and compromise.

Meanwhile, several projects aimed at helping MOOC students navigate existing pathways to college credit have attracted little or no interest. Colorado State University-Global Campus has seen no takers since offering last fall to award credit to students who performed well in a computer-science MOOC offered through Udacity. Likewise, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, which helps students translate nontraditional learning into college credit through its LearningCounts program, has not seen any students attempt to redeem MOOC certificates for credit.

Those stalled efforts to push MOOCs through the institutional membrane that surrounds higher-education credentialing have cast doubt on whether large-scale free courses will end up disrupting anything.

"As you go in the belly of the beast, you will run into this brick wall every single time," says Michael B. Horn, a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.

As the efforts to legislate MOOCs into mainstream higher education petered out, Coursera, edX, and Udacity—the triumvirate of major MOOC providers—have continued to grow, offering new courses while attracting additional collaborators and investment money.

Coursera, which recently raised $43-million, plans to double in size by the end of the calendar year, according to Andrew Ng, one of the company's founders. The company has collected close to $1-million in revenue from its "Signature Track" program, which offers users the chance to take a proctored examination and earn a "verified" certificate of achievement for their work in MOOCs.

All three providers have indicated that they are not satisfied to operate at the fringes of the higher-education system. They want to be a part of online education in the main. But given the institutional monopoly on credit-granting privileges, that means catering to colleges rather than attempting to undermine them.

"Credits are the coin of the academic realm," says Russell Poulin, deputy director for research and analysis at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education's Cooperative for Educational Technologies. "And if that's where the coins are, these companies are going to drive there."

To that end, the products and services those providers could supply colleges in the future have little to do with MOOCs. Rather, they resemble products and services that technology vendors like Blackboard and Pearson have been selling to colleges for years—"many of which," says Mr. Horn, "are not disruptive at all."

82 Students Who Mattered

Ronald F. Rogers, chair of the psychology department at San Jose State University, co-taught an introductory statistics course on the Udacity platform this past spring. Nearly 20,000 people from around the globe signed up for the MOOC version of the course. By June about 3,000 of them had completed the course and earned a certificate from Udacity, according to the professor.

But Mr. Rogers was more interested in the 82 students who were taking the online course for credit through San Jose State.

For those students, the course was not a MOOC. It was a conventional online course, just taught on the Udacity platform. Their written assignments were graded by hand by a live human being, and they could contact the professor for help. In turn, Mr. Rogers could log in to the platform, see whether individual students seemed to be stuck—and if so, where—and reach out to them.

"My life has been turned into a stream of e-mails," he says, adding that his experience as an instructor has been a positive one.

This is how Udacity now expects to make inroads in higher education: not with MOOCs but with technology and support services aimed at propping up credit-bearing online courses at traditional universities.

Rather than relying on 100,000-student MOOCs in which only the fittest survive, the company wants to "leverage the best of MOOC technology"—namely, the Udacity platform—with "services that are known to the industry," such as instructional support, says Sebastian Thrun, Udacity's founder.

"A medium where only self-motivated, Web-savvy people sign up, and the success rate is 10 percent, doesn't strike me quite yet as a solution to the problems of higher education," says Mr. Thrun.

"Are we going a step backwards? Perhaps," he says. "But, then again, we really want to solve the problem."

The closest Udacity has come to bringing MOOC-like economies of scale to the credit world is a proposed partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology on a master's degree in computer science. Over the next three years, the program aims to enroll 10,000 students, each of whom will have the opportunity to earn a degree for less than $7,000—a fraction of the cost of a traditional master's program. To save on faculty costs, Udacity would hire "course assistants" to help Georgia Tech instructors with "academic and nonacademic tasks," according to a contract between the company and the Georgia Tech Research Corporation.

But that plan, too, could encounter institutional challenges. Benjamin Flowers, chair of the university's graduate curriculum committee, says he and his colleagues have "at no point been given, to review, any written proposal for any new graduate degree program."

Officials seem to have circumvented the committee by casting the Udacity partnership as a "modification" of an existing computer-science master's program, says Mr. Flowers. He says his committee is not done with the Udacity proposal, and may raise the issue in the university's faculty senate when the body reconvenes this fall.

Conventional Course Provider

Coursera, like Udacity, has no intention of discontinuing its MOOCs. But the company has also begun positioning itself as a provider of more-conventional online courses.

In its latest round of partnerships, the company invited 10 public universities to use its online-teaching platform for non-MOOC online courses for a fee—a $3,000 charge for "development" plus an additional per-student fee. The contracts also lay out a framework for universities to license course content from one another, with a percentage going to Coursera.

The terms apply to what the contracts call "guided" or "adopted" courses, which are taught for credit to registered students—those who are enrolled at the university and pay tuition. MOOCs, by contrast, are classified in the contract as "open access" courses that are broadcast to "end users," who may or may not be students.

While casual observers tend to conflate MOOCs and the providers that offer them, Coursera has moved into new territory. Says Mr. Horn: "They're really just trying to compete to be the education platform of the future"—not just for MOOCs, but also for credit-bearing online programs.

That puts the MOOC providers in the ring with some heavyweight content providers and education-technology companies that have been duking it out for years, says Phil Hill, a co-founder of MindWires, an education-technology consulting firm.

"They're essentially going to be competing, directly or indirectly, with Blackboard and Desire2Learn and Instructure," says Mr. Hill, referring to well-established companies that sell technology- and online-support services to colleges.

The MOOC providers may soon also find themselves competing with publishers, says Mr. Hill. Textbook giants like Pearson and McGraw-Hill in recent years have expanded their product lines to include automated coaching and grading software, as well as pre-assembled course modules. Those products resemble the goods that Coursera and Udacity might sell to colleges for use in their credit-bearing courses, says Mr. Hill. The MOOC providers are, as he puts it, "skating to where the puck is going to be."

Will they be able to win control of that puck once it arrives? Nobody knows. Right now, Coursera and Udacity are riding high on hype and pedigree. Neither company is planning to hawk its wares at Educause, the annual higher-education-technology conference, alongside almost every other company that sells technology to colleges: Both say they have more suitors than they can handle already.

In the long term, the fate of Coursera and Udacity's ambitions may depend on how well their platforms and content work in a non-MOOC context.

The early returns, though hardly definitive, do not reflect the makings of a revolution. This spring, only half of the San Jose State students taking Mr. Rogers's statistics course on the Udacity platform earned a passing grade—a lower pass rate than the face-to-face version of the course, according to a preliminary analysis by the university. Other courses in the spring pilot produced similarly underwhelming outcomes. The university has since decided to pause its experiment with Udacity.

The students who earned San Jose State credit in the small-format Udacity courses will, of course, get to count those credits toward their degrees.

But the students who earned a Udacity certificate for passing the MOOC version? "You can't take that and get a cup of coffee with it," says Mr. Rogers.

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